254 players were selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, but only seven were drafted after Colorado State wide receiver Olabisi Johnson — and one of them was a long snapper from a military academy. At that point in the draft, getting even a quality special teams player is a win. The Minnesota Vikings seem to have struck a bigger jackpot than that, though.
After just 22 offensive snaps over the first three weeks of the season, Johnson worked himself into the Vikings’ No. 3 receiver role — a role that appeared to have no real front runner heading into the season. Johnson then began earning starting-level snaps in Week 7 against Detroit due to a slew of injuries across the Vikings’ receiver depth chart, most notably to Adam Thielen.
Though not the flashiest performance, Johnson stepped up in his first appearance with more than 70% of snaps played, earning eight targets for four receptions, 40 yards, and a hard-earned touchdown from the red zone en route to a Vikings road win. Between that Detroit game and the end of the season, Johnson ended up seeing over 70% of offensive snaps in seven of those 10 games and earned 36 targets along the way. With star wide receiver Stefon Diggs now out of the picture and a rookie, LSU’s Justin Jefferson, being the only major addition to the receiving corps, Johnson is a good bet to net a ton of snaps again in 2020.
Naturally, the discussion then drifts towards, “How can Johnson replace Diggs?” The short answer: He can’t. That is no fault of Johnson, either. Diggs is not only an exceptional veteran wide receiver, but he has a completely different skill set from Johnson, and it isn’t Johnson’s fault the Vikings didn’t really bring in a legitimate deep threat to fill in for Diggs in that respect. In turn, the discussion instead has to be, “How does the offense change with Johnson on the field instead of Diggs?”
And with that, we have to start with establishing what Johnson can provide for the Vikings offense. At least as a rookie, Johnson’s success was limited to the short and intermediate areas of the field, both from the slot and outside alignments. Matthew Coller of Purple Insider wrote last week that Johnson finished 90th of 100 wide receivers with at least 35 targets last season in yards per reception (9.48) and had the fourth-lowest yards after catch per reception. However, among those same players, Johnson also ranked top-20 in catch percentage (68.9%) on his targets. Johnson is as high-floor, low-ceiling as wide receivers come.
A good chunk of Johnson’s success, particularly in quick game, is how well he conducts himself at the line of scrimmage. Johnson is patient and calculated in fending off opposing press corners while still being terribly explosive once he declares his stem and gets into his route. For whatever reason, that same explosion seldom shows up at the top of his route breaks, but the separation and leverage he earns early on in routes is often enough to get him open on routes within 10 yards.
Johnson (81) is the receiver tightest to the formation. Lions cornerback Rashaan Melvin is lined up right across Johnson in press man coverage and is ready to jam Johnson at his earliest convenience. After Johnson’s first step, the gap between the two players is close enough that Melvin looks for his initial jab to get into Johnson’s frame and slow him down. However, Johnson turns his shoulder inside, almost perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, just as Melvin is reaching for his chest. Melvin’s jab attempt doesn’t land directly across the flat surface of Johnson’s chest, meaning Melvin didn’t really get to slow down Johnson the way he wanted to. After avoiding being slowed down off the line, Johnson is able to quite easily swipe Melvin’s arm away and cut across the field for a solid gain to pick up a fresh set of downs.
Fighting through contact at the catch point is a strength of Johnson’s, too. While he does not have the blend of strength and flexibility that downfield traffic threats such as DeAndre Hopkins has, Johnson does do well to bully himself towards the ball on short passes. For a quarterback as efficient in the quick game as Kirk Cousins, it is a clearly valuable skill to have.
To that same effect, Johnson shows a fearlessness and spatial awareness over the middle of the field that is foreign to many young players. Johnson is willing to take a hit at the catch point if need be, yet savvy enough to shield himself and the ball from contact as much as possible.
This play is equal parts impressive ball placement from Cousins to keep the ball inside the safety’s path, Johnson doing well to turn to shield the ball from the safety, and both Cousins and Johnson trusting each other to hold up their end of the bargain in a tough spot. Hearing the footsteps of an approaching safety is often enough to rattle a wide receiver and force them into making a mistake, but Johnson kept his wits about him and instinctually made the necessary move to put himself in position to make a play while blocking the safety out. In a Vikings offense that will presumably face more crowded middle of the field coverages next season due to a lack of deep threat, having a hard-nosed receiver like Johnson who can get in there and make tough catches will be necessary.
Better yet, Johnson also proved (at times) to have a natural connection with Cousins in the event his route needed to be adjusted, such as on broken plays. Given Cousins is not the most creative guy in his own right, having another receiver who can pick up a bit of the slack in that respect is a godsend.
In this clip, the Vikings are running one of their staple bootlegs with the receiver tight to the formation running a crossing route over the middle. With the short flat route from Irv Smith (84) covered, Cousins has to slow his roll and pull up to look for the intermediate crosser. Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) does a good job of recovering from the play action fake to sink into the area where the intermediate crosser wants to be thrown, though. He quickly recognized the play and tried to take that route away. At the same time, however, Johnson saw Vander Esch sinking to that area as soon as he turned his head out of his break.
Rather than continue running a doomed route, Johnson slows up and looks to settle in the area behind where Vander Esch is expanding to, making Vander Esch appear as though he’s running around like a chicken with its head cut off. The awareness and understanding Johnson showed on that play, especially for a rookie seventh-rounder, is a good sign for him moving forward.
As all these clips show, Johnson’s sweet spot is really the 5-15 yard area. He already has a veteran-like spatial awareness and ability to keep himself clean at the line of scrimmage, making him a lethal weapon on quick-hitting passing concepts. Deeper routes are not really in Johnson’s toolbox, though. At least not right now.
Johnson struggles to maintain his explosiveness coming out of breaks and does not have the most impressive breakaway speed when he does work himself free from contact. Likewise, Johnson’s above-average athletic profile does not really translate to his yards-after-catch ability. He is a tough player who is willing to drop a shoulder into a defender, but the ability to make players miss in space or warp pursuit angles with raw speed just is not there.
None of that is to say Johnson is a bad or ineffective player, either. He is just incomplete; incomplete specifically in areas in which Diggs thrived (down the field and with the ball in his hands). When paired with the fact that the Vikings presumptive No.3 receiver (Jefferson) isn’t known as much of a deep threat either, one has to imagine the pillars of Minnesota passing offense will shift at least a little bit.
Rather than leaning on the shot plays they so dearly loved and relied on last season, the Vikings may need to turn towards a more intermediate-focused passing attack. The 49ers, for example, are a play-action, under-center offense much like the Vikings, but were one of the two least-aggressive offenses down the field last season, with the other being New Orleans. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers instead opt for even more crossers, glance routes, and digs over the middle. Quicker hitting play-action concepts, if you will. With Johnson, as well as Jefferson, stepping into the fold, the Vikings offense should look a bit more like that. As Nate Tice alluded to on The Athletic’s NFL podcast this week, Minnesota will need to (and can) favor hyper-efficiency at the cost of some of the explosiveness that carried the offense last season.
The good news is that none of that really adds or takes away from the current playbook. It merely shifts the emphasis on which concepts we are most likely to see from them, particularly in the play-action department. Johnson’s comfort on slants, shallows, out routes and the like may also mean a slight increase in standard drop back passing concepts, particularly from shotgun. The Vikings played out of the shotgun on just 31% of their plays last season, which ranked lowest in the league by more than 10%. An assumed decrease in max-protection shot plays from under-center formations should mean an increase in shotgun usage as they favor some more short and intermediate passing concepts.
In all, despite losing Diggs and replacing him with a second-year player who was a seventh-round draft pick, the Vikings passing offense may not see a dip in overall production. The path to earning that production with Johnson in the mix is just going to look a little different — slower, more methodical, and less flashy — and there isn’t anything wrong with that.